ACLU says Homeland Security buys smartphone data to track you

Phone security
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New records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various divisions may be spying on people using smartphone location data.

The ACLU got over 6,000 pages of records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, which you can read in its entirety on the organization’s website. The documents show how the DHS was able to sidestep US civil rights by purchasing with taxpayer money user data obtained through smartphone apps. According to the ACLU, this data collection was all done without a single warrant being issued.

Large scale tracking

The DHS was able to bypass the law by purchasing information from two data brokers: Venntel and Babel Street. According to one highlighted document, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of Homeland Security, once spent over $2 million to obtain location data from Babel Street. The ACLU also published a Venntel marketing brochure that details how the company collects data and it’s pretty insidious.

Venntel states it collects and analyzes “billions of commercially-available location signals to provide…” information on a smartphone’s whereabouts and a person’s movement. The brochure goes on to say that law enforcement will be able to find smartphones at “places of interest” and later “identify repeat visitors, frequented locations, pinpoint known associates, and discover [a] pattern of life.” It paints a very detailed picture of what a person does in their day-to-day life.

In total, the ACLU found that the DHS has around 336,000 location points in its possession. In fact, over the course of a three-day period in 2018, the DHS got about 113,654 location points from a single area in the Southwest United States. The ACLU worries about people living along the southern US border as it claims location data can be used to discriminate against people living in those areas as CBP searches for illegal immigrants.

Throughout the document were several instances of Homeland Security trying to justify the department’s actions after employees raised concerns. The collected data was characterized as nothing more than “digital exhaust”, that it’s all excess information. But digital exhaust can actually reveal a lot about a person’s internet behavior like what websites they frequent or services they use.

Another government document tries to assert that people willingly share location data and collecting this information is done with user consent. The ACLU rebukes this, stating most people aren’t aware how many apps are collecting location data and many don’t expect the government to buy this data either.

We reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and Babel Street and asked if they’d like to make a statement about the ACLU documents. We’ll update this story if we hear back from them.

Fighting for protection

We probably haven't heard the last of this. The ACLU revealed that Homeland Security still owes it more information, so there may be another round of documents. The organization also points to a bipartisan bill currently in Congress designed to protect the Fourth Amendment.

It’s called the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act and is being co-sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill would require law enforcement to get a court order before accessing citizens’ data and that includes buying information from data brokers. It was first introduced in 2021 and is still waiting to be looked over by the Senate.

If you’re worried about Homeland Security snooping around, we recommend checking out our list of the best secure smartphones for 2022.

Update 7-20-2022:
After we published, a representative of Homeland Security responded to TechRadar with this emailed this statement:

"The Department of Homeland Security is committed to protecting individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. DHS uses various forms of technology to execute its mission, including tools to support investigations related to threats to infrastructure, illegal trafficking on the dark web, cross-border transnational crime, and terrorism. DHS leverages this technology in ways that are consistent with its authorities and the law."

Cesar Cadenas

Cesar Cadenas has been writing about the tech industry for several years now specializing in consumer electronics, entertainment devices, Windows, and the gaming industry. But he’s also passionate about smartphones, GPUs, and cybersecurity.